Thursday, September 26, 2013

Corporations working hard to train kids to fear copyright

Wired has an article about California's forthcoming copyright curriculum.

The idea appears to be to teach kids that copying anything is bad, and to ignore fair use.

I worry about this because I'm constantly noticing that people's casual knowledge of copyright tends towards fear that something isn't allowed. People are already overworried about this sort of thing.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Vienna focuses on how women use the city and makes the place better for all

Slate, in the article at, referenced some facts about Vienna, which apparently a) studied how people use the city and then b) acted upon that, improving the place. Especially for women, but in fact everyone benefits.
In 1999, city planners asked residents to fill out a survey about how they use public transportation, and found stark gender divides in how people spent their time—and therefore how they used the city. 
The majority of men reported using either a car or public transit twice a day—to go to work in the morning and come home at night. Women, on the other hand, used the city’s network of sidewalks, bus routes, subway lines and streetcars more frequently and for a myriad reasons.
And so this is what Vienna did:

They started the long process of reorganizing infrastructure to ease intra-neighborhood running around, instead of just focusing on commute-based transportation. That means wider sidewalks and more ramps for pedestrians pushing carts and strollers, closer schools and drugstores, and more courtyards where children can run around while you run errands. 


Also, though, THIS is what I think of when I hear 'Vienna'....

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Best D&D with teens ever = fewest rules ever

I had a recent role-playing-game experience that was really a knockout, and it came from dropping nearly all the rules.

I had a weekend where I was going to be gone on Saturday, while my 13-year-old daughter was hatching a plan to have some friends over to play "D&D" on Sunday. The kids don't really know what D&D is exactly, but they know they want to try it.

She needed a gamemaster who knew how to play, and tried to draft her 16-year-old brother, but it looked like a recipe for sibling sabotage. So she asked me, and I had absolutely nothing prepared.

(Well, I have a basic setting idea I'd been wanting to use, and you'll see how that plays out.)

But during the morning I had an idea. I was thinking about how most startup games get devoted to character generation, and it occurred to me -- what if we established all character abilities during play.

I applied to that a rule cribbed from Donjon, helped by me not having read the Donjon rules in a long time, so that I forgot most of how to use it.

So we ended up with just one mechanic: abilities defined as using some number of 6-sided dice, with rolls of 4+ treated as 'successes', and each success allows you to state a relevant fact of the world, Donjon-style.

Each player got 20 dice and started with one ability chosen. The setup was this: the characters start out in a giant canyon, waking up, with amnesia, knowing only one thing about themselves.

This idea came from my Catastrophe Canyon setting, which includes the idea that drinking canyon water causes various forms of amnesia.

After that, we started play, and most of the encounters they had derived from facts that they established through successes. It really worked rather well.

Each time they tried something, they could decide to assign from 1 to 6 dice to it, from their 20 total.

I'll probably want to post some more details later -- like the cake-monsters they fought because one player's successes 'found' some cake under a bush, and I turned that into a living cake with humanlike feet...  but let me just say that this game session accomplished everything I'd hoped for.

One of the players had even played 'real' D&D before. I warned her in advance that what we were going to do wouldn't much resemble that, and she was game.

Worm is a serialized superhero on the web. Worm is wow.

I'm really enjoying this story of a girl in high school who has super powers and is just now ready to start using them publicly, who has to figure out how to keep her secret identity and carve out a hero identity:

 I'm going to try and mention a couple of things about it that might grab you, and then I'm going to point out a few cool things from a comic geek perspective.

Okay, let's set the hook a couple of ways:

  • Girl in high school must resist using her super powers to destroy her bullies.  I mean, if you went through high school and didn't at some point think, "wow, it's a good thing I don't have laser vision, because I'd just fry half the people here in a weak moment," then dude, you were part of the problem.
  • Girl sets out to begin publicly using her powers, immediately meets both heroes and villains; forms relationships with both, setting her on a path where she's going to be pulled in both directions.

I like that she's had the powers for a while. I like her point of view. I like that she has a plan for becoming a superhero.

The story paints a world where superpowered people are pretty common, where society has come up with some interesting was to integrate them, or not integrate. The author has clearly thought about the ramifications of super powers in interesting ways. Kids discuss metahumans in ethics class. There are blogs about the "capes." There's media from an alternate world that some mad scientist contacted.

The comic-book dichotomy of heroes and villains is soon complicated. Villains get  a chance to talk about how they see things.

The worldbuilding goes further on how superpowers work. Powers seem to be connected in some way, and that interests me, because having a rationale for all powers is kind of the obvious way to make a comic-book world make more sense -- HEROES did the same thing of course -- but it also tends to kill the comic-book feel. Comic-book worlds have dozens of heroes with wildly different origins. So far the feel of Worm is of a world with lots of wild heroes, yet it's clear that powers have some things in common. For example, a common limit is mentioned, of powers not working inside someone's body, so that for example a force-field power can't be used to put a bubble in someone's heart and kill them instantly. That's a tremendously useful limitation.

This girl's got problems. In fact, she's kind of got all the classic Spider-Man problems. Bullying at school, led by an intense alpha kid. Missing a parent. And since her power is the ability to summon and control bugs, well, the parallels are fun.

But it's the writing that does it. You're intensely in her head as she deals with all of her problems. It's about relationships and choices and pain. The bullying is scarily intense. I'm loving every episode so far and I've read 13 episodes so far. So, enjoy!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Steampunk in real life: first biological gear discovered, in an insect

This is particularly weird and insect that locks its legs together with gears, to synchronize a jump.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

A plan to end street harassment (of women) forever

I have a plan that will stop street harassment for all time. It goes like this:
  • All women are now allowed to carry swords.
  • All women get 20 free hours of sword training.
  • All women are allowed to cut a fool without suffering legal consequences once per calendar month.
Fine points and clarifications......

My favorite writing tip from Worldcon this past weekend

I was lucky enough to get to go to Worldcon this weekend. I only spent a day. Chiefly, I learned that a day is not enough time.

I found myself comparing it to Armadillocon a lot, because that's my only other recent convention experience. The main thing I'm looking for in a convention is panels about writing, and this one had them in plenty. On the Saturday I attended, nearly every hour had two panels of great interest to me -- which meant I found it hard to take time out to eat or go to the dealer room.

But I was going to give my favorite writing tip. This one came from a short-story panel featuring Michael Swanwick, James Patrick Kelley, Vylar Kaftan, and Cat Rambo. I'll state it like this:
"You'll be tempted to show character using backstory. Don't."
I found that one profound, because I'm always struggling with long backstory/flashback sequences bulking out my stories, and readers find they drag. This statement made me realize that backstory is the FIRST thing I think of for adding characterization.

I took this idea home and immediately cut a long sequence from my current story, without much pain.

The other thing I wanted to mention about this tip was that I walked away from the panel thinking that it was Michael Swanwick who said that. But when I checked my notes later, the tip actually came from James Patrick Kelley. I figure I attributed it to Swanwick just because he's more well known, and that is eye-opening.